In April, as he prepared to make his offer to buy Twitter, Elon Musk asked on the site if “a new platform is needed” for “the de facto public town square.” Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder—and, until recently, its CEO—replied to him privately in a now-public text. “Yes, a new platform is needed,” he wrote. “It can’t be a company. This is why I left…It can’t have an advertising model…It should be funded by a foundation.”
Musk is unlikely to listen—especially given the plans he announced Thursday morning to make Twitter the “most respected advertising platform in the world.” Twitter after Musk’s purchase will be loaded with debt; interest alone will be billions of dollars each year. And his alliance with far-right voices (see, for example, the “three Musketeers” meme he posted suggesting common cause with Donald Trump and Kanye West), combined with his undercooked ideas about content moderation make him an unlikely steward for the kind of cohesion and meaning-building digital “town square” democracies need.
The other options are no better. Mark Zuckerberg seems to have given up on his stated mission of building community and “bringing the world closer together” while he chases the metaverse, and is pivoting Facebook and Instagram to algorithmically-surfaced TikTok-style videos. And TikTok, the fastest growing social application and an increasingly important source of news around the world, is effectively controlled by the world’s most powerful autocrat, Xi Jinping, and his surveillance state.
Musk’s purchase is the inevitable outcome of a choice we collectively made to cede our public sphere to centralized, advertising-driven companies controlled by a few men. The outcome has been a functionally autocratic digital environment, in which you can tweet whatever you want—but to change the dynamics of the platform itself, you need $44b. And it’s been disastrous for democracies, for communities, and for many people who have suffered the hate, political oppression, and worse that comes with being an afterthought in an attention economy.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
This moment of great change in social media gives us a window to choose a different path. It’s time to stop relying on a few billionaires or VCs to make key decisions for billions of people around the world. It’s time to invest in public digital spaces that actually serve the public and prioritize healthy relationships, stable communities and, well, people.
This isn’t just a pipe dream: a growing movement of software architects, community entrepreneurs, designers, and researchers around the world—including myself and my colleagues at New_ Public—are starting to imagine and build the kind of truly public public spaces that Dorsey’s text gestures at.
We start by taking the “town square” metaphor seriously—not just because “town squares” are not run for financial gain, but because a meaningful understanding of how public spaces work in healthy communities in the physical world can give us a great deal of insight about how to structure the digital world. In the physical world, we’ve developed a whole host of social affordances and institutions–from park benches and parks to schools to sidewalks to libraries—to help build cohesion and inclusion.
And as in the physical world, in the digital world there should not be one single “town square,” no single, unitary nonprofit Facebook clone. We take inspiration from the economist Elinor Ostrom, who after studying how communities manage commons like fisheries and forestries around the world declared that there are “no panaceas,” no one-size-fits-all solutions for commons management.
What we should aspire to is an overlapping ecosystem of cross-connected public-service and publicly-owned digital social spaces. On today’s “big social,” a few voices do a lot of the speaking, while most users struggle to get heard, get shouted down when they do, or self-censor to avoid harassment and worse—a problem less prevalent in the world of “small social.” Moving to smaller fora creates more opportunity for everyone to actually participate.